UNCASVILLE – Does victory get any less sweet if you keep on winning?
That’s the endless debate that seems to *dominate* social media when the UConn women’s basketball team is clobbering a conference opponent for the hundredth time.
Well, despite all the winning, the feeling of success doesn’t get any less sweet for Kia Nurse and the Huskies, who won their fifth consecutive American Athletic Conference championship Tuesday night and qualified for their 30th straight NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been amazing (to qualify for the tournament 30 times), to be honest with you,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s not like we’re the first ones to do that. I mean there have been other people that have been bad for women’s basketball before us. When you play women’s basketball at Connecticut, you’re supposed to go to the NCAA Tournament. That’s, like, non-negotiable.”
In this year’s edition of the conference championship, No. 1-ranked Huskies (32-0) returned to the Mohegan Sun Arena for the third consecutive night to defeat a fiery USF Bulls team by a score of 70-54. The Bulls played UConn as well as they ever have, but still came up short in their efforts for the upset.
Nurse and fellow senior Gabby Williams have faced the USF Bulls in four straight American Athletic Conference championship games and, as of Tuesday, have come out on top in each and every one of those games to be crowned conference champions.
“It’s pretty wild to think that I’ve done four years of (winning the conference championship),” Nurse said. “But you can’t take any of them for granted. I obviously know now this is my last one, but you never know which one could be and, for us, it was a good team win today and it was exciting.”
Williams, who battled back from a hip injury that kept her out of the semifinal, was a key player in the Huskies’ victory in the final. The senior forward from Sparks, Nevada said the effort it takes to accomplish four consecutive championships makes the feeling of winning never get old.
“This is our fourth year, mine and Kia’s, winning this championship and having to play against USF,” Williams said. “It never gets old. Every time, it’s still a celebration and every time, it’s still a grind. And they always put up a good fight. So, just the fact that we were able to do that four years in a row, it wasn’t easy to do.”
First-time conference champion and freshman Megan Walker said her more experienced teammates preached that players have to be ready at all times come tournament time, when anything can happen.
“It was an amazing feeling (to win the title),” Walker said. “Just being able to experience it all, you know the process of playing everyone again and the tournament. It’s kind of a pre-NCAA Tournament.”
On the other side of battle, the Bulls fell short in their upset bid but showed at times, especially in the fourth quarter, that they can be a team that can play with the likes of the Huskies, despite losing for the fourth consecutive year.
“(USF) really fought the whole game and I think they made some really tough shots,” UConn junior guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. “We weren’t making it easy for them and they were still scoring and running their offense really well…I think each time we play them, they’ve done a little bit more so I don’t expect that to stop either.”
USF head coach Jose Fernandez said he was proud of his team’s strong playing ability and that they deserve a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. Still, by playing in the American, the comparisons to UConn will always exist for Fernandez and the Bulls.
“For us, it’s great to have UConn in this league,” Fernandez said. “We embrace it. Us coaches want to coach against the best and our players want to play against the best. I think our program gets judged on the three times we play Connecticut.”
While this means playing second fiddle to a superior team, Fernandez said it is a good thing to have UConn in the conference.
“Getting to this championship game is tough for four years. UConn is good for this league. We are trying to catch the best team in the country,” Fernandez said. “And for us, we embrace it. We enjoy it. And we haven’t beaten them yet, but that’s what I think these guys strive to work for every day.”
USF superstar Kitija Laksa, who scored 26 points on 9-23 shooting and 5-12 from beyond the arc, said it was a privilege to play the Huskies three times a year and that it helps the team to prepare for the big dance.
Both UConn and the Bulls will now get a little bit of time off as they await Selection Monday, which will determine when and where they play in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies’ path will almost certainly begin through Gampel Pavilion two weekends from now, when they host games in the first and second rounds of the Albany regional. UConn is expected to be the No. 1 overall seed.